The Basis for Ojukwu’s Greatness

The Basis for Ojukwu’s Greatness

Where exactly is the basis for Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s greatness? This question sounds rather blasphemous coming from me, a young post-colonial Igbo who fancies himself a historian of some sorts. Is it that he took up arms against his country, no matter how legitimate his cause was? Or that he actively participated in scuttling the first coup which sought to violently cleanse Nigeria of misrule and corruption? Or that he went to the Aburi peace conference with proposals which, depending on implementation, might have split the country? Perhaps his greatness lies in his rebellion against his father’s choice of course of study and career for him. But many people have made a roaring success of following their heart over the years. Among my peers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie turned her back on medicine and became a great writer who wrote her acclaimed ‘Half of a Yellow Sun.’ Or does Ojukwu’s greatness stem from his adventurism in college? Or because he committed class hara-kiri? Maybe it is because he wooed, bedded and married some of Nigeria’s most glamorous women?

I never met the Ikemba in life. But my interest in how Nigeria stopped turning from 1960-1970 compels me to devour both fiction and non-fiction on the people and events that shaped that period. My parents lived through Biafra, Mum as a nurse in Biafran hospitals. Over the years, as I matured and observed how my Igbo people fared in inter-group relations within Nigeria, I came to understand Ojukwu’s place as the Igbo icon. But was he worthy of his iconic status? Does he, to quote Stanton, a top American civil war era government official’s depiction of Abraham Lincoln after the latter’s assassination, ‘belong to the ages?’

History must not be suppressed by sentiment. Biafra was not conceived as an entity of its own, in spite of Biafrans’ heroic achievements on and off the battlefield. If my recollection of Ojukwu’s interview with ‘The Source’ magazine in 1997 is correct, the Ikemba did not set out to carve out a country. Biafra was a reaction to the genocidal oppression unleashed on the East by Nigeria from 1966-67. Ojukwu was a convinced ‘One Nigeria’ man-his antecedents bespeak of this attribute-but he was too much of an Igbo to let his people become yesterday’s news in a perverse federation. ‘I realized I was an Igbo, a Nigerian, an African and a black man. And I determined to be proud of the four. In that order,’ he told his friend and biographer, Frederick Forsyth. But did he do the East a disservice by not deliberately planning for secession after the massacres of 1966 instead of going to eventually futile peace meetings even as the other side built up their arsenal? Against this line of thought a portrait of Ojukwu the world seems to be seeing since his death emerges: that of a reluctant warrior. Let the records of Aburi in January 1967; the Ad-hoc Conference of September 1966 and Ojukwu’s meetings with the Western Regional leader, Obafemi Awolowo, before the outbreak of hostilities speak for themselves.

Ojukwu was not a saint. Few historical figures are. But what interests me are some of the Ikemba’s decisions and actions that impacted on the people for whom he became an icon. Did he do the Biafran struggle any good by allowing the trial and execution of Banjo, Ifeajuna, Agbam and Alale in September 1967 for an alleged coup? Perhaps he was so insecure about his position that he refused to incorporate leading and competent Biafran military officers and civilians into the war effort and running his regime. Alexander Madiebo, Ojukwu’s army commander, declared in his book ‘The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War’ that ‘Biafra never had a government but merely operated under a leader.’ (Madiebo.p.379). Did his age-old differences with Nnamdi Azikiwe blind Ojukwu to the man’s value to Biafra and thus nearly pushed the Owelle out of the Biafran orbit, though his poem is the basis for the anthem of the LAND OF THE RISING SUN? As the face of Igbo unity, did Ojukwu do well by getting into the fray of the Second Republic from 1979 to 1983? What of the controversial Eze-gburu-gburu title he took and his refusal to work with other acclaimed Igbo elite? Though I must admit that given the sleazy record of some of these elite, Ojukwu might have done the Igbo and Nigeria a favour by keeping his distance. Then was it just for Ojukwu to associate with the Abacha government?

These posers are indicative of the enigma called Ojukwu and will be debated for years. But nobody can erase the historical truth in what he told Forsyth: ‘You cannot, you simply cannot, abandon, betray or sell, a people who have put their trust in you and remain an honourable man.’ For nearly three years Eastern Nigerians, both Igbo and non-Igbo, trusted in Ojukwu and he did not fail them. He showed them what leadership meant when the world was against them. Herein lies his greatness in my opinion: he demonstrated in a leadership-starved society that it was possible to get uncommon feats from common people. By becoming one with their aspirations, fears and hopes, he earned his place in their hearts. He did not get it right at times but he did his best for Biafra and even his enemies acknowledge that.

20 thoughts on “The Basis for Ojukwu’s Greatness” by henry c.onyema (@ezeakwukwo)

  1. I love the summary.
    Ojukwu is gone, but his works live after him… the best we can do is learn the good such men did in their lifetime.
    I must say I got loads and bunches of lessons from this article.
    Well done @ezeakwukwo

  2. Though I am Yoruba,Ojukwu is one of the eminent Nigerians I looked up to,to the annoyance of most of my ‘Pan-Yoruba’ friends.

    The questions you raised will forever be debated,but one thing is sure; Ojukwu stood by and didi what he thought was best for his people.

    Very interesting article you have written here.

    Well done!!!

    1. @Lawal Opeyemi Isaac. We are in the same shoe, sir.

  3. Very objective. We’ve missed Ur work here. Good job bro…

  4. Ojukwu, no doubt, was a great man. He was a real Nigerian hero.

  5. A daring piece of work- straight to our faces. I like the detail and precision in this work. Your arguements were well brought foward with so much innocence in its presentation,leaving the reader as the final arbiter. Hmmmm… I must say.

  6. Nice writing.
    Ojukwu is dead. Biafra too.
    End of matter.

    1. Kaycee, be a bit humble when you face history. I am proudly Igbo but I would be the last person to want us to return to the bloody days of Biafra. Yet all indices in Nigeria indicate that it may re-occur if we are not careful. It need not be the Igbo this time. Check out the happenings up North. Back in 1993, at the height of the June 12 crisis, the Yoruba were close to declaring an Oduduwa Republic. Outside Nigeria: Sudan kicked off a bloody civil war between her mostly Arab North and black, mostly non-Muslim South around the time of the Nigerian civil war. Late Colonel John Garang, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army for the South, was killed in a suspicious helicopter crash in 2003/4, if I am not mistaken. The South fought on and got an independent republic only last year following a UN-supervised referendum. So Ojukwu’s demise may not be the end of Biafra. It behoves the younger generation, to which you and I belong, to rise to the challenge of building a just Nigeria.

  7. Me and political issues don’t fly but all the same, I got the message from this clearly. Well written.

  8. Nice! I like the objectivity, u distanced yourself from politics & sentiments…you did great. Welldone

  9. I like the way You portrayed him, A man with flaws who did his best for his people still…Well done

  10. jonnysnow (@jonnysnow)

    Aren’t you a columnist in a certain Nigerian daily?

    1. Which one, bro? I write for quite a few papers.

  11. Several years ago, I read varying accounts of the civil war from the major perspectives and it’s hard to dispute the ‘necessity’ of the Eastern Region’s secession yet, did Ojukwu have to flee when Biafra lost the war? If he was convinced of the Biafran dream, since he’d lived by it, why was he too ‘afraid’ to risk dying for it? At the very worst, he’d have been killed or more likely, imprisoned or exiled for his beliefs and actions.
    The consequences of that war on the Igbo people were legion and merciless, especially just after it’s conclusion, Ndigbo essentially became second-class citizens in their own country.
    Till date, many Nigerians from other geo-political zones seem willing to accept presidential candidates from anywhere else OVER a south-eastern candidate. Does a leader that abandoned his followers when the chips were down merit any significant esteem? Does he? It doesn’t require a great leap of imagination/bravery for a soldier to react to oppression with force, teachers teach, soldiers fight…
    When true bravery was required, when people returned to meet their properties stolen/seized, livelihoods destroyed, rife persecution…where was Ojukwu?!

    1. Would it have done both Nigerians and Biafrans any good if he had stuck around and provoked a guerrilla war? Granted, Ojukwu left in less than heroic circumstances but I think he did well. The state Biafra was at that time, he might have been overthrown by Biafran officers who were sick of the whole sad show. As for Igbos not being presidential material for other zones, that is just the fallout of losing the war and poor political navigation by the elite of that area. For years, after the South lost the American civil war, they were at the bottom of US’s political heap. But it ended much later. George Bush(father and son) and Bill Clinton came from states that took up arms against USA from 1861 to 1865. Then let us face this: if you are a non-Igbo, how do you view the Igbo? And if you are Igbo, do you think Ojukwu had a choice with the massacres of July-October 1966 and the Aburi fiasco? Am not making excuse for the Ikemba but history’s painful facts are there. Abandoned property wahala is a consequence of losing the war. Do you know that in the early 80s Ojukwu’s property in Ikoyi, specifically, 29 Abayomi Street, was seized by the state government as an abandoned property? Fresh from exile he had to fight via the courts and PR-sleeping in the open outside the house with his then wife, Stella-till he won?
      May we learn from our past.

  12. Guerrilla War? That’s not what I meant. I think it might have been better if he’d stayed to provide moral, motivational support for the Eastern states, encouraging them to pursue peaceful, successful reintegration into the Nigerian nation. He led them in war, the least he could do was support them non-violently when he lost. He might have been overthrown by Biafran officers? What kind of general allows the situation to degenerate to the point where his own soldiers begin to seriously contemplate rebellion against him? If he couldn’t deliver what he promised, it’d have been better for him, himself to honorably broker peace with the rest of Nigeria or hand over to a more skillful and talented Biafran military officer to make his dream come true. Maybe ego blinded him till it was too late…
    So Igbos should wait till let me see, a hundred years after for a chance at the presidency? Thankfully, I don’t think it’ll take that long.
    I viewed the Igbo with surprise, shock even, that they willingly re-accepted a leader that perhaps unintentionally yet definitely deserted them. I don’t think it’s animosity that biases public opinion against an Igbo president. I think it’s fear, that what the ‘Ikemba’ failed to do, he’d achieve…but considering Nigeria today, that might not be as terrible as it earlier seemed.
    Maybe he didn’t have a choice and something had to be done…but antagonizing Zik ,forcefully annexing the non eastern South-South states(which just happen to have crude oil)…it just seems he had more than Ndigbo liberation and security in mind, perhaps tiny a desire for power and greed played a role?
    He’s dead and we might never know exactly what his genuine motives were but we can learn from him.
    He’s after all one one of the most influential contributors to Nigeria’s history.


  14. Interesting indepth analysis…I also wondered whether he was being hailed beyond what he was actually worth but this piece brings about an understanding of what may have been the reason why he is seen as a hero.

    I’ve always questioned why people honored him. True, he led the people but on reading and studying the works of authors like Festus Iyayi, I’m wondering…was all he did really worth it?

  15. Very interesting article. Personally, I feel the Late Ikemba was one of the most articulate orators Nigeria ever produced; someone who could clearly and creatively express himself without the use of “Hon. Patrick” words. That alone is enough to make him my hero.

  16. Thank you bro, you just said my mind.

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